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teachers’ strike

BCTF members cast ballots in Vancouver Thursday on a six-year deal that includes a 7.25-per-cent salary increase.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Even from a distance, the disappointment was apparent in the cluster of teachers standing outside a downtown Vancouver voting site.

Moments earlier, they had cast their ballots on a tentative agreement to end B.C.'s protracted teachers' strike.

(Connect with our B.C. teachers' strike live blog for the latest updates on the strike.)

Of five chatting in one group, three teachers had voted against the agreement, saying neither classroom conditions nor salary increases had been adequately addressed, despite job action that has cost some teachers around $10,000.

The other two said they voted in favour of it grudgingly: They can't afford to picket any longer and are concerned that rejecting the agreement would turn public support against them.

Nonetheless, all five believed the tentative deal would pass.

"We are not happy," said Vancouver teacher-librarian Frances Renzullo. "We feel like we were a little taken by the government and not left with a lot of improvements. We walked [the picket lines] a lot, and lost a lot of our wages.

"Today, being knocked down like this, I feel really disillusioned."

High school teacher Elisabeth Agosti said she felt both disappointed and insulted after seeing the details of the tentative agreement, which was shared with members late Tuesday.

"I just thought, 'We're being forced into this. We have no choice,'" she said.

The six-year deal includes a 7.25-per-cent salary increase, improvements in extended health benefits and teaching-on-call pay, and a $400-million education fund to hire specialist and classroom teachers over the six-year term.

If the agreement is ratified, teachers will return to the classrooms on Friday to prepare for the start of the new school year.

Individual school boards will decide whether classes begin on Monday or Tuesday – three weeks behind schedule.

Some teachers noted that if the union was satisfied with the 7.25-per-cent salary increase – an amount many noted doesn't even keep up with inflation – it should have accepted it in the spring, when it would have come with the government's $1,200 signing bonus and curtailed additional weeks of picketing.

Teacher-librarian Mary Locke said she was "extremely disappointed" that learning conditions for children won't have any meaningful improvements.

"But I am very happy that our courageous action, in going without salaries all these weeks, has brought about a public conversation about public education and its role in society," she said.

Said counsellor Bonnie Caulfield: "I really feel there should be a law that anyone who becomes an MLA – and especially the premier – should have to sign their children up for public schools."

Jim Iker, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, says the education fund will amount to "several hundred new teaching positions each year" – but some school districts have already indicated it won't bring classrooms back to the pre-2002 levels the union has long been calling for.

Patti Bacchus, chair of the Vancouver School Board, said it would cost nearly $60-million just to restore what has been lost in the past dozen years in her school district.

"If we were to have the equilvalent level of services and staffing as we did in 2002, adjusted for enrolment, adjusted for inflation, it would take about $60-million to restore the equivalent level," she said.

"That's everything from senior managers down to playground supervisors. There's a small amount in this agreement that will bring some more teaching positions back into the schools, that will replace some of the ones who have been lost, and that's a good thing, but does it move us ahead of where we would have been? No. It's kind of putting back a portion of what has been lost through 12 years of funding shortfalls."

The provincial government has lost two B.C. Supreme Court cases over its 2002 decision to unilaterally remove class size and composition from the collective agreement. The government is appealing and a hearing is scheduled next month.